The Plague of Urban Evictions
New Yorker reports on evictions of poor renters in Milwaukee. The numbers are shocking.
Harvard Professor Matthew Desmond was a doctoral student in sociology at UW-Madison when he became interested in studying the issue of evictions in poor neighborhoods. “He spent four months in 2008 living in a trailer park on Milwaukee’s south side, a poor, predominantly white neighborhood near the airport, and nine months living in a rooming house in a poor, predominantly black neighborhood on the city’s north side,” as a story in Harvard Magazine recounts.
He found that evictions were a huge problem, beyond what any research on poverty had ever imagined. Analyzing court records, Desmond found that in this city’s majority-black neighborhoods, one in 14 renting households is evicted each year.
But after living for more than a year in Milwaukee, he learned that many evictions happen informally: landlords may pay cash to convince renters to leave (it’s cheaper than paying the legal cost for evictions), may cut off a tenant’s electricity or even remove the front door of a rental unit so it will be condemned and the tenant forced to move out. His survey of local renters found that one in eight Milwaukee renters was the victim of an eviction or other involuntary relocation each year, but it was one in seven for black renters, and one in four for Hispanic renters.
During the last 16 years, Desmond found, median rent nationwide has increased more than 70 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In Milwaukee, he found the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment rose from $585 in 1997 to $795 in 2004, while monthly welfare payments did not rise at all, and minimum wage increases did not keep pace with inflation.
The standard rule of thumb for affordable housing is you shouldn’t spend more than 30 percent of your income on the rent or mortgage payment. But a study by the Urban Institute found that for every 100 extremely low-income renter households in the country, there are only 29 affordable rental units available.
Desmond found poor tenants in Milwaukee spending as much as 88 percent of their income on housing. “The average cost of rent, even in high-poverty neighborhoods, is quickly approaching the total income of welfare recipients,” Desmond has written. “The high cost of housing is consigning the urban poor to financial ruin.”
The appalling story he’s uncovered has led to a book he will publish next month, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City. And it also led to a feature story he wrote in the most recent New Yorker, “Letter from Milwaukee: Forced Out.” Once again, Milwaukee, one of the nation’s poorest cities, is America’s poster child for the manifest miseries associated with poverty.
Whereas evictions were once a noteworthy event in an urban neighborhood, Desmond writes, nowadays, “evictions are too commonplace to attract attention. There are sheriff squads whose full-time job is to carry out eviction and foreclosure orders. Some moving companies specialize in evictions, their crews working all day long, five days a week. Hundreds of data-mining companies sell landlords tenant-screening reports that list past evictions and court filings.”
Of Milwaukee’s 105,000 renter households, Desmond found, landlords legally evict about 16,000 adults and children each year. But the number is nearly double that when you take into account informal evictions.
“Women from black neighborhoods made up less than ten per cent of Milwaukee’s population but nearly a third of its evicted tenants,” Desmond writes. “If incarceration had come to define the lives of men from impoverished black neighborhoods, eviction was shaping the lives of women. Poor black men were locked up. Poor black women were locked out.”
And typically they were mothers of children. In court cases, tenants living with children were almost three times more likely to be evicted than those without children, Desmond noted in a 2014 story by the New York Times.
The disruption that evictions and constant moving cause on children can be imagined. Back in 2010 a report found that 32 percent of Milwaukee Public School children moved during a school year, which may cause them to switch to a school in a different neighborhood. Moving was a negative factor in student achievement, a 2013 study found.
The Times speculated that the rise in evictions might be explained by a shortage of rental housing caused by a lack of new construction during the recession and the wave of foreclosures that turned homeowners into renters. But Desmond’s data suggests the problem has probably been building for decades, as the cost of housing rose year by year, and the income of poor people — poor mothers in particular — did not keep pace.
In short, its a huge problem that predates the current state leadership, but it’s fair to say the actions taken by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature have not helped things. They’ve opposed an increase in the minimum wage, which could make a huge difference for low-income workers. Meanwhile, Walker’s cuts in the Homestead Tax Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit resulted in a loss of money for low-income individuals and families. The Republican-controlled legislature also made it easier to evict people through “a series of bills, barring cities from enforcing statutes that required landlords to give tenants a reason for declining to renew a lease or to assess an apartment applicant’s ability to pay based on history rather than income,” the Times reported.
The New Yorker’s heart-breaking story concentrates on one mother and her children, and how they go through repeated evictions for lack of money, and moving their paltry stock of possessions by hand: “To avoid embarrassment, Arleen and the boys walked their things over to the new place at night, pushing the larger items, like the sun-faded floral-print love seat, on top of a wheeled garbage can.” For people like that, every dollar counts, and the smallest loss of family income can be an earthquake.